In 2002, Susan Abulhawa was sent to Jenin, Palestine, as an international observer — a trip that forever changed her life. Upon her return, Abulhawa sat down to write her first novel, Mornings in Jenin, which became an international best-seller and has been translated into 26 languages. For Abulhawa, the attention the book has received internationally is beyond anything she had imagined.
Weekend Review met Abulhawa — who is also a political commentator and human rights activist — to speak about her first novel, her upcoming work and Playgrounds for Palestine, an NGO she founded that is dedicated to building playgrounds for Palestinian children in their country and abroad.
What I saw in Jenin was shocking at so many levels, but it was also quite humbling to watch how the people came together and shared what little they had. So when I left there, I really wanted to tell their story because I knew nobody was going to talk about it.
I was working at a drug company. When I returned to the United States, I was at the cafeteria for lunch and one of my colleagues came around and sat with me. Jenin still occupied a big part of my heart and mind and my colleagues were upset because the company had announced something that was going to affect their bonuses.
It was so hard to reconcile those two things. They were two parts of my life and it was suffocating. A few months later I was laid off and it was probably the best thing that happened to me. It was scary, of course, for as a single mum, I wasn't making much money and I was already in debt.
The very next day I started reflecting on the events of the month that had passed and kept writing until at some point I realised I was writing a novel. It pulled me in and I fell in love with the characters.
How much of you is in this novel?
There's a chapter called "The Orphanage" and it is completely autobiographical. There are other aspects of the novel that were not intentional, but sort of ended up paralleling my life.
The question I get a lot is: Is Amal, the main character, me? And the answer is no. She and I are very different, but there are a lot of parallels that have emerged that I didn't intend. Like I said, I didn't plan the story and it sort of unfolded as I started writing.
Amal ends up going to the US; she is completely alone and she becomes a single mother — so those are the parallels.
After two years of writing and rewriting this novel, how real have the characters become to you?
It is really a lovely process — that I wasn't expecting. There were the early irritations and the characters were stick figures who were talking in my voice. But with the rewriting you get to know them and they slowly become separate from me and separate from each other, and at some point they take a life of their own.
I just fell in love with them — every single one of them, even the not-so-great characters — and they kind of tell their own story. I have pictures of them in my mind.
What would you like to highlight in relation to your novel today?
Because it is a Palestinian story, people tend to focus on the political aspect more than I would like them to. I do want to say that it is a human story and it is a love story above all. I wasn't trying to show both sides. That was not the intention. The Israeli characters are there because of necessity. They are part of the narrative. My loyalty was to the story of the characters and I wasn't trying to be balanced.
In the Palestinian narrative, there are no two sides. There are no two sides to this conflict in the same way that there were no two sides to the Holocaust. There were no two sides to apartheid. There are no two sides to slavery. You have a nuclear power that is pitted against principally an unarmed civilian population. This is not a matter of sides.
You started Playgrounds for Palestine in 2001. Tell us about it.
It is a simple project where we raise money in the US and around the world, which then we use to build playgrounds for Palestinian children in various parts of Palestine and the refugee camps. We have 20 playgrounds.
We are a small organisation and we are all volunteers. Nobody has a salary. That limits us to some extent but that may change in the future. We have a support base that grows a little bit every year. We have to work at it. That is our limiting factor — manpower.
What is next for you?
I want to take some time off from my job and focus on the next novel. It is about a little boy and takes place in Gaza.
When should we expect it to come out?
I don't want the time pressure. There are already pressures and expectations and it is really intimidating. It is a completely different experience than the first novel. Then, there were no expectations — not just from others but from myself. I didn't know what I could do. Now that I see what I am capable of, when it doesn't come out that way on the first trial, I feel like: was this one just a fluke? I have to remind myself about the initial irritations while working on the first novel, so it is coming along.